Family members will remember their lost loved ones today; tourists at ground zero will try to imagine how the World Trade Center stood five years ago; and Americans will come to relive the terrorist attacks as news channels replay the fateful day of 9/11 in real time.
How does the role of faith play out in America five years after terrorism was feared by a majority of Americans? Today, the scene in America seems to have returned to its normal, fast-paced and worry-free state. Less than half of Americans now have concerns about terrorism, according to a Gallup poll. And the state of Christianity is also back on track to stagnating or fading out, as a recent Barna Group study indicated. Dr. Carl A. Moeller, president and CEO of Open Doors USA, gave his perspective on what Christianity looks like in September 2006.
CP: Some persons were quoted in an article as to saying the recovery of 9/11 has ended and the attitude and atmosphere in New York are really positive today. Would you say the same about the state of New Yorkers and Americans today?
Moeller: I think if 9/11 was a wake-up call to worldwide Islam and radical Islam and terrorism, I think we rolled over and hit the snooze button. I think most Americans are asleep to the intensity with which radical Islam seeks to convert Americans to their way of thinking. And their version of conversion is quite different than ours. They come to us with a plan to force us to submit to the will of Allah. And of course Christianity and the Church worldwide is going to people with the love and hope of Jesus Christ. It’s quite a different agenda.
I would say our mood swings between fear and apathy in the U.S. What I observed is people either are pretending as if everything is just the way it’s always been and fine in apathy and thinking, ‘Well, we’re past 9/11 now;’ or really gripped by fear. In the summer you saw when we’re no longer allowed to take liquids on planes, grandmothers are being profiled as terrorists – there’s sort of a schizophrenic pendulum that swings between apathy and fear in each of our lives.
However, I think Jesus Christ had a different approach to his enemies and those that threatened him. He approached them with love and boldness and I think that’s the remedy for us in this crisis. As we look at terrorism worldwide, we have to be bold in our approach to those that would do us harm. We have to be going with love so that we can replace the hate with the love of Jesus Christ.
CP: You saw the latest Barna study on faith in America after 9/11 and it showed that the number of Christians has not gone up and Christians themselves have not increased their level of commitment to their faith. So where is the spiritual awakening that many Christian leaders had predicted for America after the attacks?
Moeller: I don’t think it’s anywhere on the horizon. That’s very unfortunate because I remember the days right after 9/11. I was a pastor and thousands flocked to our church to kind of deal with some of the big questions of life. But within a few months, that had largely dissipated and the attendance levels were back to normal and that doesn’t surprise me at all that Barna’s finding five years later, there’s hardly any impact, probably no impact statistically on our religious affections.
However, I think that that is an indicative sign that we’ve really gone far in our culture towards a value ethic of personal peace and affluence, as Francis Schaeffer said. If we’re okay, if our lives are doing well, the economy’s doing okay and I’m okay, we don’t really think about those big questions of life and death and destiny. That’s unfortunate and I pray we don’t have to go through another wake-up call like 9/11, that instead of rolling over and hitting the snooze button, we might just get up and recognize that we have something that is far more precious than anything else – and that’s a God and a country that we can love greatly.
CP: Dr. James Dobson had said “security is an illusion” even in this powerful nation and hopes a genuine spiritual renewal will sweep the nation. Are you still hopeful of a spiritual awakening and if a terrorist attack doesn't trigger one, what can?
Moeller: I agree with Dr. Dobson very well because I think the reality for us today is that we have defined safety in terms that create within us a sense of personal peace. You see, we’ll never be safe in this world, especially as Christians. We are engaged on the enemy’s territory and safety as we often define it in our culture is an illusion. We have to recognize that this is warfare that we are engaged in, spiritual warfare at the very core. But in the spiritual warfare as well, people do suffer and die worldwide. We know that over 230 million Christians today are suffering for their faith in Jesus Christ. They’re the frontlines of the battle. And we recognize we’re not suffering physically but maybe spiritually in our souls that we suffer greatly and apathy is maybe more deadly to our spiritual life than maybe persecution is.
I believe that it may take another wake-up call; I pray that it doesn’t. I think it was Mark Twain who said ‘Experience is not the best teacher. Other people’s experience is.’ And if we can learn form the experiences of others who have suffered and recognized their faith as important then maybe God will spare us from the kinds of persecutions that our brothers and sisters go through. Although, I would say, judging from our response to 9/11, I don’t find that too likely.
CP: Time magazine recently reported an increasing trend of devout Christians converting to Islam in the U.S. and Europe and some reason it to Islam providing a 'detailed moral map covering everything from friendships to protecting the environment.' How would you explain this growing trend?
Moeller: I think it’s clear that historic Christianity has been largely abandoned by major segments of American Christian society. That is, the God of the Bible is not worshipped the way He should be. In fact, when God is worshipped we know we have the truth. Jesus said ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.’ I believe strongly that the Christian values that Jesus gave us and the Christian message is the message of Truth. However, in a society where truth is relative and Christianity has watered its message down, people are still searching for the deep reality they’ve been given as sort of pseudo-Christian culture. And in that pseudo-Christian culture, there aren’t any answers. And in comes the Islam into that vacuum of spiritual values and spiritual answers and it says we have the answers. They are clear and Islam is the answer. I think that it’s important to remember that Christianity, as C.S. Lewis said, is not that it has been tried and found wanting; it’s that it’s never been tried, and this is the situation for many of those that are finding in Islam a security and an answer. They were involved in a Christianity that wasn’t providing the kind of dynamic relationship with God that we know is at the heart of true Christianity.
CP: At the same time, Christianity is flourishing in Africa and Asia including China where religious freedom is suppressed. What is your response to this in comparison to the dwindling number of Christians among Westerners?
Moeller: I think that’s an incredible insight. You see, we often characterize those that are persecuted as the ones that are suffering. But in terms of Christianity, those are the ones that are flourishing and those are the ones that are seeing their faith become tangible and real and powerful. I put it this way: a Chinese house church pastor told me that they pray for us in America because he said that persecution is the devil’s second best weapon to destroy the Church. Apathy and affluence are the first. And we in America and in the West overall have suffered apathy and affluence. Our spiritual lives have become deserts and we no longer have the spiritual vitality to stand up against the onslaught of Islam.
However, if you look at Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, where Christians have been bombed by the Sudanese in South Sudan or they’ve been forced into shipping containers in Eritrea to deny their faith; if you look at China where the house churches have been persecuted for 50 years or in Vietnam where Christian leaders in the highlands are tortured as a part of their confession of Jesus Christ, that’s the implication. Those people understand the value of their faith and they live it. They have capped into the deep well root of spiritual power that comes through living through persecution. We in the west have largely forgotten all that. And it’s because of that that we are weak, we are flabby in our spiritual life whereas they are strong and vital. And that is where you see Christianity growing. And where Muslims are turning to Christ is in the places where Christians are persecuted. Here in America, you see Christians that are pseudo-Christians turning to Islam because Christianity doesn’t mean very much here.
CP: Still, even in the midst of all this, 9/11 seems to have opened more dialogue among interfaith leaders. Can you comment on that?
Moeller: I guess it really means whether it’s positive or negative, you have to look at the individual cases of what the basis of the dialogue is. I don’t know that you can ‘dialogue’ with someone who wants to kill you and won’t be dissuaded from that position. On the other hand, I think that there is the opportunity to examine the principles and the underpinning behind radical Islam versus historic Christianity. Unfortunately, those that are engaged in dialogue more often with the Muslim extremist, are people who don’t have a true Christian faith. They have a cultural Christianity or they have a liberal Christianity but it’s not real true faith. And they’re willing to compromise Christian principles in order to make peace. We find that’s the worse way to make peace because your enemy will not respect what you believe. We find the best way to make peace is to go to your enemy in love and bring them hope in boldness, the hope of Jesus Christ. That’s where we see real dialogue and real peace taking place. It’s where Christians take up the responsibilities of their belief and live out Jesus’ admonition to love your enemies. And the enemies can’t believe that and they are the ones who are responding. But I believe where Christianity is compromised, the respect from Islam goes down.
I put it this way: in many Muslim countries, Christianity is a permitted religion. You can practice your Christian faith as long as you don’t proselytize and as long as you don’t convert. But you can gather for your worship services and you can meet. In most of these countries, Christians are discriminated against but they’re permitted. I don’t believe that that’s what Jesus had in mind when he said the gates of hell will not prevail against you. And he also wasn’t interested in seeing people not care about their neighbor’s coming to faith in Christ. I believe that a compromised Christianity can have all the dialogue it wants with Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism but it will never be true Christianity because in true Christianity, we have a message of hope that can’t be compromised.
CP: Did you hear of the Freedom/Unity Walk that’s occurring on Sunday and Monday among interfaith leaders including evangelical, Muslim and Jewish leaders?
No, but I would be very supportive of those that want to endorse a commitment to non-violent peace and those things, but I would be very cautious of the principles of which the agreement is based and that would be my only concern about something like that is that somewhere along the line, true conviction and true Christian principles might have to be compromised in order to stand in “unity” with Islamic leaders. It doesn’t mean we don’t love them. It doesn’t mean we don’t believe that they have a great deal of value in God’s eyes as much as any other person does but it also means that we don’t compromise the message that Christ gave us of hope and love. Otherwise, we’re like that 1st Corinthians passage where it says, ‘Without love, I’m just a [loud noise]’ and I don’t make any impact.
CP: In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, church attendance had soared, like you mentioned, and more were questioning the morality of America. So what is it about 9/11 that people should remember especially in context of what seems to be an unchanging nation toward the Christian faith?
Moeller: That’s a wonderful question. I think what we need to remember – and I’m so glad that so many on this fifth anniversary are turning back to those moments (news stations are broadcasting their original coverage) – there are lots of ways to put us back in that moment, and if I can put ourselves back in that moment what I would have people remember is this: that overwhelming sense that life as we see it around us is not reality. That instead, reality has far deeper, far more profound implications that there are people who don’t subscribe to our values that are all around us and we have to examine what it is that we truly believe. I think that’s what caught most Americans on 9/11 by surprise. We had a simple assumption that the world was a lot like us, maybe just without a lot of money. And that’s not the case. We have to reach after our sense of what it means to be ‘under God,’ as our constitution says, and given by Him these rights, what does that mean and how can we understand that in the context of a post-9/11 world.